The Trip to Greece Review: Death Stalks Steve Coogan

Pop Culture

A warning: The Trip to Greece (available for digital rental May 22) will make you sad. Which isn’t unlike the other three movies in the Trip series—the original England-set film, The Trip to Italy, and The Trip to Spain—which all have their arresting, if gentle, moments of melancholy. But Michael Winterbottom’s ostensible conclusion to his quadrilogy, in which actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing heightened versions of themselves, have traversed parts of Europe doing impressions (Michael Caine and Mick Jagger perhaps most prominently among others) and musing on life and career, is the most directly sad of the bunch, contemplating the end of things with a bitter bluntness.

It’s fitting, of course, that tragedy should greet the pair as they arrive in Greece, doing an Odyssean trek from ancient Troy (in modern-day Turkey) to Ithaca. That old, old earth is littered—quite picturesquely—with the ruins of what remains of grand monuments to civics, religion, and drama. The eastern Mediterranean, so haunted and ennobled by memory, is the ideal place for Coogan and Brydon to have their silliness—always laced with a dyspeptic tang—swallowed up by a deeper, more sorrowful resonance.

But that’s not really what made me sad about The Trip to Greece. In some ways, it’s an impossible movie to watch right now. Those stunning locations, that fabulous food, the brief but meaningful proximity to other people—it seems so otherworldly at this point, artifacts from a lost reality, an alternate planet. It’s a strange thing, to be jealous of the recent past, especially when the two people enjoying it seem only fleeting aware of its sensual pleasures. Yeah, yeah, Coogan and Brydon admire the view from time to time, and compliment the food. But the true majesty of it all seems to pass by unnoticed, taken for granted as a fact of life rather than appreciated for the transcendent luxury it is.

Which is kind of the point, I realize. The Coogan and Brydon of the Trip movies are (Coogan more so) supposed to be more than a bit blithe and entitled, their nattering competitiveness and one-upmanship immune to the splendor around them. That’s as much of a prickly riot in Greece as it is in the other Trip films. But it’s also awfully hard to watch from the confines of home, at a time when a walk around the neighborhood is as much of a journey as many of us can take. Even if the particulars of the Trip’s trips were likely never within our grasp, before this spring there was, at least—hovering in the Pinterest boards of our minds—the dim possibility.

So The Trip to Greece plays a bit bleakly even before the concrete bleakness sets in, with a plot development I won’t spoil here. Though I will say it has to do with the great specter that looms over all things, death. That’s a natural culmination point for the series, which has previously dealt with fears of aging and obsolescence and the tenuous legacies of celebrity and parenthood. The film uses one end to consider all others, a hushed exploration filmed delicately by Winterbottom. It’s especially gratifying to see Coogan, whose “character” has spent the last couple of Trip movies insisting that he is not just a comedian but a true Actor, show off that oft-referenced range in subtle but illustrative fashion.

What I like best about Greece, though, is how it uses its settings in a more thorough way than the previous films did theirs. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Greece a couple times, and in that sun-baked, ludicrously beautiful country, history seeps up through the ground and effervesces everywhere. It’s impossible, amidst the breathless gawping, to not glumly realize what all that history really means, to not feel helplessly caught up in (and a minuscule part of) the unending rhythm of clamor and quiet that’s defined all of human existence. There is very much a present-tense Greece, but it’s also ghostly, wistful, a tingle of existential dread lightly troubling even the most relaxed or decadent afternoon. (I realize the Sopranos scene I just linked to is about Paris, but the sentiment still holds.)

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